As television became a ubiquitous force in people’s living rooms, the portrayal of reality began to grow paradoxically – broader strokes were being taken as more and more people consumed the medium, but more nuanced stories were being told in order to appease this burgeoning audience.
The eighties marked a time of excess and prosperity: Ronald Reagan was beating down the last whimpers of Communism in Europe, Margaret Thatcher continued unabated and Mad Max was Beyond Thunderdome.
Shoulder pads notwithstanding, Murphy Brown became the go-to figure for career women. Also, heavy on shoulder pads, the prime-time soap opera was at its zenith; with the likes of Dynasty, Dallas and Falcon Crest taking over the airways.
While Meryl Streep chose Jan over Eva and “hahd a fahm in Ahfrica” (at the foot of the Ngong Hills); hip-hop’s influence as a form of communication grew for the underrepresented and disenfranchised (before Michelle Pfeiffer was teaching inner-city youths that it was just another form of poetry.)
These hallmarks of a time of excess and bloated self-congratulation around the world continued mostly undeterred into the nineties; as a confused society looked inwards at itself, mocking through the looking glass of pop culture with certain disdainful self-reference.
It was cool to be seen as against pop culture: everything was wrong with the world and it was now time to wallow in it. Al and Peggy Bundy were derived as the anti-thesis of The Cosby’s, Seinfeld was a show about nothing and The Nanny skewered the rich and the working class in a warped version of The Sound of Music.
As the nothingness of the nineties subsided, leaving Monica Lewinski and Steve Urkel to be rightly forgotten – every one watched in horror as terrorism became a thing that happened to countries that people actually cared about.
Suddenly it wasn’t a joke to lampoon reality – after all, it been irreparably scarred by the spectre of bombs, war and the rise of Adam Sandler. Initially, portrayals of reality in a post-9/11 world turned to the anti-hero as way of overcoming adversity. Tony Soprano was a mobster we could all identify with: he wanted to be a nice guy – but the world conspired against him.
Then came a phenomenon that offered society a way to simultaneously love and loathe themselves: reality television.
As George W. Bush captured the hearts and minds of a nation with rhetoric on finding weapons of mass destruction, Sara-Marie Fedele did the same through bum-dancing. While Saddam Hussein hanged in Iraq, Jeana was buying Kara and Colton new cars on The Real Housewives of Orange County. The nation was in awe when they proclaimed ‘Mission Accomplished’, but gasps were louder when Kourtney had a pregnancy scare on Keeping up with the Kardashians.
Like paramecium dividing and multiplying, reality television has become the all-encompassing medium that holds a mirror up to society. The portrayal of reality has become increasingly warped as ‘reality’ takes over our lives.
Portrayal of life has morphed into a new genre of unreal microcosms, which underscore a time of upheaval in the world at large.
For every mention of the rise of China, there is Jody speaking barely detectable Cantonese on the Real Housewives of Vancouver. While Australia’s mining boom suffers, Yukon Gold is thrust into the spotlight. And for all the talk about North Korea’s threats of war, there is actual fighting going on between Charlotte and Marnie in the Geordie Shore house.
Moving forward, it is important to not only recognise – but embrace – the portrayal of everyday life in this new medium.
For you see, it is more important to me to see whether Lisa and Kyle can mend their friendship on the Beverly Hills Housewives, than to see if the Assad regime uses chemical weapons. Forget Angela Merkel’s speeches on the debt crisis of the Eurozone, I’d much rather hear Uncle Si’s words of wisdom on Duck Dynasty. And if I don’t see Nene and Gregg get remarried on I Dream of Nene, I may literally die.